Here Today

Text Pamela Young

Architectural timelines tend to be more Galápagos tortoise than mayfly: design teams generally spend months or years developing projects that are expected to last for decades. For some architects, however, creating something meant to exist for one brief shining moment has a lot of appeal. Temporary installations are a means of testing out ideas and connecting with a wide audience—and they can offer a stimulating reprieve from the prosaic constraints that routinely weigh down flights of fancy. A sampling of architects and recent graduates from Vancouver to Quebec City spoke to us about their latest art installations, and explained why pouring one’s heart and soul into a project that’s here today and gone tomorrow can be a source of lasting joy.

This year for West Vancouver’s multidisciplinary Harmony Arts Festival, architect Matthew Soules, MRAIC, designed Vermilion Sands, a canopy that unites the natural and the artificial and exploits tensions between them. The name comes from a 1971 collection of science fiction stories by J.G. Ballard, in which hybridizations of nature and technology yield singing plants, cloud sculptures and other surreal results.

For the entry to the festival grounds, Soules and his team created a canopy of 260 inverted, pyramid-shaped modules in two sizes: smaller ones hydro-seeded with white clover and larger ones with rye grass. Constructing the modules involved sewing a geotextile fabric—normally used to stabilize plant growth on steep slopes—over a wire frame and then spraying a slurry of water, wood pulp, guar gum and seed onto each form. After a month of watering and fertilizing, the vegetation-covered modules were transported to the site and suspended from a fine grid of aircraft cable to form a 1,800-square-foot oblong canopy. An integrated misting system kept the modules hydrated during the 10-day installation and also provided cooling for festival attendees. At night, LEDs positioned on the canopy’s perimeter columns bathed the installation in eerie light.

Soules says that Vermilion Sands was a huge amount of work: growing the pyramid modules and then keeping them alive while hung upside down in the August sun was “not easy,” and throughout the festival his team was constantly tweaking the misting system to suit changes in the weather. But he loved how children in particular responded to Vermilion Sands, running and giggling under the canopy when the mist came on. And he considers the time invested in the project well spent. “To my knowledge, hydro-seeding has never been used in this manner,” he says. “It was a risky endeavour, and we didn’t know it would work until the project was installed on site. When you can take these risks, you develop new methodology and approaches—the projects become like research. They have a big influence in my career as an architect, in that I learn things that I can incorporate into permanent, larger projects.”

Early in 2014, Kaz Bremner and Jeremiah Deutscher were intern architects working at Perkins+Will’s Vancouver office when they decided to enter VIVA Vancouver’s Robson Redux competition. The 800 block of Robson Street is one of downtown Vancouver’s signature public spaces: bordered by the Vancouver Art Gallery, Arthur Erickson’s landmark Provincial Law Courts, and the University of British Columbia’s urban campus at Robson Square, the site is open to vehicular traffic for much of the year, but transformed into a pedestrian plaza in the summer. The Robson Redux competition called for a summer installation that would strengthen people’s connection to the space and to one another.

Local talents Bremner and Deutscher beat out entrants from as far away as Japan and Spain with their entry, Urban Reef. The three undulating islands are made from 987 CNC-cut birch plywood sections, linked together with threaded rod. As better benches, they supported activities ranging from sitting and lounging to eating and watching street performances. A coral reef is an armature that supports an ecosystem; similarly, Urban Reef fostered social interaction and strengthened the 800 block’s identity as a locus of activity.

For Bremner and Deutscher, Urban Reef was a win on several fronts. “It always bolsters your design reputation in and out of the office to win a competition,” they said in a joint e-mail response. “It has also catalyzed our drives to seize or create entrepreneurial opportunities. It was interesting to manage all aspects of the project, from sourcing materials through to installation on site. The experience definitely translates into confidence when managing larger projects professionally.” Bremner is still with Perkins+Will and Deutscher has since started his own practice, Deutscher Studio. Winning this competition forced them early in their careers to come to grips with the challenges of coming in on cost, which in this case entailed designing and constructing the entire project for $40,000. “We had a robust concept design, but the realities of manufacturing and budget hadn’t been examined with a sharp pencil.”

Some architects view installation work as a liberating change of pace. “It provides an opportunity to execute my design ideology in a purer, less complicated format,” says Winnipeg’s David Penner, FRAIC, principal of David Penner Architect, whose credits include the University of Winnipeg’s Buhler Centre and numerous residences. “Perhaps its value to me is as a release from the ever-increasing parameters and constraints that drive the day-to-day work.”

One of Penner’s best-known installations has undergone an adaptive reuse. Created for a wintertime warming huts competition on The Forks, the structure originally known as Little Red Library is a transparent red cube constructed by thermo-stretching a welding curtain over a tubular steel frame. In keeping with the international literacy-promoting Little Free Library movement, visitors were invited to take a book from the bookcase within it and leave another book in its place.

This summer, the structure was relocated across from Winnipeg’s Peanut Park and took on a new temporary life as Little Red Art Gallery. Members of the community could borrow the art books it contained on an honour system, and four art shows were also held in the tiny venue. The last of them, Steal this Poster, involved partnering with a local printmaking centre to produce copies of one free work of art each day for a month. To Penner, the most gratifying response was the sense of intrigue Little Red Art Gallery generated. “I saw people asking themselves, ‘What is this?’ ‘Why is this here?’ and ‘How does it do that?’” he says. “Few buildings today achieve that. Our physical environment seldom really competes with what is expected, or with the magic and intensity of the virtual world.”

Speaking of magic, three Master of Architecture graduates from Laval University worked some crowd-pleasing alchemy in a nondescript Quebec City alley over the summer as part of Les passages insolites (The Unusual Passages), a public art festival curated by EXMURO arts publics. Gabrielle Blais-Dufour, Robin Dupuis and Alexandre Hamlyn of the design collective Les Astronautes won Laval’s student-funded competition to create an installation for Les passages insolites with a project they called Delirious Frites. “We decided to work with pool noodles, called frites de piscine or ‘pool fries’ in French,” Hamlyn explains. He and his colleagues installed more than 1,700 of the kid-friendly flotation devices on both sides of a narrow alley, creating something that was, as Hamlyn says, “colourful and fun, but also uncanny, organic and lifelike—almost like vines in a jungle.”

For Les Astronautes, the installation p
resented an opportunity to bridge the gap between a computer-designed project and a constructive reality, using software such as Rhino and Grasshopper. For festival-goers of all ages, Delirious Frites was, quite simply, fun. “People were not afraid to interact with our installation in part because they recognized what it was made of,” Hamlyn says. “It was not seen by the public as something precious or out of touch, but as something they could very directly engage with. In that sense, I think we succeeded in creating authentic public art.”

While installations are a sideline to architectural practice for many designers, ephemeral pieces are a primary focus for Toronto-based architects Christine Leu, MRAIC and Alan Webb. They founded LeuWebb Projects to take on cross-disciplinary installations that, as Webb says, “reveal layers of history, uncover latent narratives, play with materials, and engage the senses.” For Toronto’s recent all-night Nuit Blanche arts festival, they collaborated with electronic musician Jeff Lee and software designer Omar Khan on Melting Point, an installation for the Fort York National Historic Site. The Melting Point team stocked two of the Fort’s cannons with “an artillery of glowing good feelings”—sequentially lit rows of coloured lights that cascaded down the hillsides below the cannons. In addition to the dusk-to-dawn light show, a soundscape of lapping waves and tranquil harp music laid a “defence” against the freeways and condos swirling just beyond the Fort’s perimeter.

Leu, who formerly specialized in multi-unit residential projects with RAW Design, recently left private practice to concentrate on LeuWebb Projects, and also teaches courses in architecture and interior design at Ryerson University. Webb works in the University of Toronto’s Campus Planning office, but in the coming year, he and Leu will both be taking a sabbatical that will include an extended artist residency and travel abroad to further develop their art practice. “Knowing that these projects have a limited life span encourages more adventurous prototyping and leaves room for play and whimsy,” they say. Many architects can surely understand the appeal of play and whimsy, and may wish that their own working lives left more room for both.
Pamela Young is a Toronto-based writer and editor.